Kenya struggles with a million new mouths to feed each year

Clinging, peeping, smiling, ambling, running, shouting, eating, playing in streets and on hard red earth -- Kenya teems with small children, evidence of the fastest population growth rate in the world. This pro-Western bastion of free enterprise on the African continent is struggling to survive a growth rate of more than 4 percent a year.

Four percent might sound like a small figure -- but it means that a population that was just under 9 million at independence 25 years ago is now 20 million. By the year 2000, the United Nations says, it will almost double, to 39 million.

That means the average Kenyan family still has eight children compared with a global average of 3.5 (and a United States and British figure of 1.8).

The growth rate is causing more and more alarm here. The US is said to be about to launch a big family-planning campaign here.

Only one-fifth of the land here can be farmed -- and it supports 85 percent of all Kenyans. One-third is northern desert adjoining Ethiopia and Somalia, a desert that is gradually spreading. As waves of people swamp schools and slums, urban unemployment is estimated to be at least 30 percent.

Almost 1 million children are born each year, says President Daniel arap Moi. He warns that even if Kenya's economy grows at 6 percent a year (which is double the 1984 rate) for the next 25 years, Kenyans will be only half as well off by the year 2000 as they are today.

But such predictions have had little impact on the Kenya of the moment: Women have almost no status at all while the children they bear are seen as insurance against poverty during old age. For men, having many children is regarded as a sign of masculinity. While birthrates have stayed high, infant mortality rates have fallen.

Official policy is to cut population growth to 3.6 percent by 1988. Western diplomats say it can't be done unless the government works much harder. Half of all Kenyans are under 14 years of age. Tomorrow's parents have already been born.

Kenya remains important for the United States and Western Europe, as a civilian-ruled democracy in East Africa, bordering on Marxist-ruled Ethiopia, and on Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania. The US, West Germany, Britain, and others have big commercial investments here. Western navies use the strategic deep water port of Mombasa. Nairobi airport is the sophisticated hub of eastern and southern African air traffic.

The military has tried just once since independence to topple the civilians -- in 1982. The coup failed. Memories of it have just been stirred here as an appeal against a death sentence by one of the coup leaders was rejected by the High Court of Kenya.

Hezekiah Ochaka, an Air Force NCO, seized the Nairobi radio station for four hours on Aug. 1, 1982, before being chased out by troops loyal to the President. Ochaka and another leader, Pancras Okumu, fled to Tanzania on an Air Force plane but were returned by the Tanzanian government. An appeal from Okumu, who had also been sentenced to death, was quashed Feb. 19.

``The day of the coup was extremely tense,'' recalls one white Kenyan who was in Nairobi at the time. ``Ordinary citizens were walking around the streets with hands held high, one hand holding their identity cards. All kinds of soldiers were roaming around, jumpy and nervous, and you could hear shooting all that night. . . .''

A number of young white Kenyans see little future here. ``I'm planning to get a job in the US,'' said one, who asked that his name be withheld. ``Five years ago I wouldn't have said that. Now I've changed.''

One reason: the faltering economy, threatened by high population growth. Another factor: crime is worsening, especially robbery. Other residents here agree.

``I've got a crossbow in my bedroom,'' said the young man. ``And a pickaxe. . . . Everyone talks about panga gangs [groups of hefty young blacks wielding pangas or machetes who rob wealthy homes].

``I haven't been hit by pangas, but I was pole-fished.''

Pole-fished?

``Yes, you know. I was asleep in Malindi [on the coast north of Mombasa] and woke up to see a long pole with a line poking through the window to hook my trousers from the back of a chair. I suppose he thought I had my wallet and keys in them. . . . Anyway, I had a dagger nearby and slashed at the pole. It was a metal rod, and the clang shook up whoever it was.''

An Ethiopian refugee awoke recently to find several men trying to extract gold-filled teeth from his mouth with pliers.

Other whites here say fear of crime may be exaggerated. All big cities have crime of some kind. But Western embassies in Nairobi hire dusk-to-dawn guards and protect French windows with heavy metal screens.

``What you must not do,'' says a longtime white resident of Nairobi, ``is have anything valuable like a video recorder or a color television in your home. My family and I simply do without such things.''

``And on the coast, at Malindi for instance, where you have to keep your window open at night because of the heat, you must never leave any valuables within range of a pole-fisher.'' Only 36 hours earlier, a British couple and their security guard had been shot and killed by a gang within 300 yards of his home.

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